Biopics are tricky things. If you’re making a movie about a remarkable person, the last thing you want to produce is an unremarkable movie, especially if it’s about someone as renowned as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At time of writing, Ginsburg just cast the decision-making vote to block a proposal that would’ve restricted immigrant families from seeking asylum in the U.S., and she did so from a hospital bed after lung cancer treatment—how do you live up to that?
“On the Basis of Sex”, Mimi Leder’s biographical drama film about RBG, might seem a little redundant this year. It comes only months after the documentary “RBG”, an inspiring film about the Supreme Court Justice’s lasting impact on women’s rights in America. “On the Basis of Sex” follows the first part of the same story: Ginsburg’s rise from distinguished law student (one of only nine women in a class of 500 men) to the lawyer who proved in court that the United States discriminated on the basis of sex (hey, that’s the title of the movie!).
Much of Ginsburg’s life revolves around dissolving the barriers between men and women, and in this biopic, Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer showcase that equality with extraordinary grace. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband Martin, Jones and Hammer use their performances to reverse the gender dynamics that plague many a movie about accomplished men. Hammer channels masculine extroversion into a role that’s distinctly supportive, while Jones personifies the quiet power that exists within women leading the way.
Their scenes together capture Ginsburg’s convictions more naturally than the rest of the movie. “On the Basis of Sex” is a boilerplate biopic—Ruth constantly hears the perfect inspirational words at the perfect moment, oftentimes from her daughter, who’s little more than a walking plot device here. The biopic tendency to sanitize someone’s life into a digestible origin story does Ginsburg a disservice. Though the movie does display her drive and hardworking spirit, it often portrays her as stumbling into social change by virtue of convincing speeches from the people around her. Yes, no one changes the world purely on one’s own, but the movie’s Hollywoodification of RBG isn’t as interesting as her actual triumphs. The truth can be stranger and more exciting than fictionalized truth.
Leder is a capable filmmaker, though, and the mere act of competently putting Ginsburg’s life on screen makes for an enjoyable experience. It’s moving to watch Ginsburg put in herculean effort to overcome stubborn, diminutive men. But it’s telling that the movie’s most emotional moment is a short appearance from the woman herself—it’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg that does justice to “On the Basis of Sex”, not the other way around.